Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

February 28, 2011

Seattle's Roundball Race Experiment, Revisited

Doug Merlino reunited with members of his eighth-grade basketball team, made of up rich white kids and poor black kids. He found that for many, the experience changed their lives.

Justin Adler

Where-are-they-now features are generally reserved for pop-culture icons whose 15 seconds of fame flickered out long ago. Doug Merlino's eighth-grade basketball team isn't a typical subject. But when Merlino, now a writer, attempted to reconnect with teammates 16 years after their final game, he learned that players who were once so close had gone on to live vastly different lives.

Doug Merlino. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan.
"I wanted to take the standard sports-movie arc and go beyond that and go back to things that made an impact on my life."

Doug Merlino. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan.

Merlino's AAU basketball team was as much a social experiment as it was group of kids trying to win a basketball game. His team was comprised of privileged white kids, from the same Seattle high school that Bill Gates attended, playing alongside poor, inner-city black kids. Years later, Merlino was shocked to see one of his teammates thriving as a hedge-fund millionaire. He was equally astounded—and also heartbroken—to learn another one of his teammates ended up dismembered, dead in a ditch.

Merlino exhaustively researched the lives of each member of his 1986 squad, which resulted in his first book, The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White. The book offers a bleak look at Seattle's racial divide, which, as Merlino says, "takes you beyond the Space Needle and grunge era into the history of segregation and brutality." The book is his personal memoir that dives deep into racial and economic class-based issues in Seattle and the US, with his eighth-grade basketball team as the focal point.

In an interview edited for length and clarity, Gelf Magazine sat down with Merlino to discuss his writing process of The Hustle and the difficulty of trying to tackle such complex racial issues.

Gelf Magazine: When you were reconnecting with your teammates, at what point did you realize you had a book idea?

Doug Merlino: I went back for the first time in October 2002 to try to find the guys, and I quickly got the contours of what had happened to everyone. I drove down and saw my former teammate Damian Joseph at his house. He talked about the team in a very analytical way. He was a poor kid on our team who got into private school, but he still spent time hustling on the streets. He'd gone through many ups and downs, going back and forth between what you'd call "white Seattle" and "black Seattle." Damian and I got deep into conversation and began to truly realize that there were interesting characters and experiences that I was not going to be able to sum up in a short article. I had no idea how to write a book or what it entailed, but I knew this one team was a window into many larger things, such as race, religion, and education.

Gelf Magazine: How much of your experience were you able to appreciate and understand in 1986, when you were in eighth grade?

Doug Merlino: I was always interested in racial issues as a little kid. I was a big Pirates and Steelers fan and all their stars were black players, and that was an interesting dynamic to me, even in eighth grade. I did not realize how quite out-of-the-ordinary my own experience with my AAU team was until later. Everything that happens to you as a kid just seems natural.

Gelf Magazine: How long did the book-writing process take you?

Doug Merlino: From first interview to turning in a draft was seven years. A lot of it was writing stuff and scrapping it. The toughest part was trying to work in many characters and still make it flow thematically.

Gelf Magazine: In your process of reconnecting with your AAU team, what was your biggest surprise?

Doug Merlino: The fact that my former teammate Dino became a dot-com millionaire and hedge-fund manager. I did not realize that I personally knew anyone who made millions from the dot-com boom. I was also shocked to see Myran so involved in the crack era and see how it caused his life to rapidly spiral downward. He was always such a talker that I thought he'd have a job selling appliances.
It all opened the window on the hidden history of Seattle, taking you beyond the Space Needle and grunge era into the history of segregation and brutality.

Gelf Magazine: What were some of the tougher issues in writing the book?

Doug Merlino: The reporting was just a matter of tenacity, but the research and issues I covered were very complex. Any time you're taking on race and class, the issues are not going to be easy to talk about. Overall, I just wanted to use sports to talk about the connections we make, or the ones we feel we make, and the connections we don't ultimately make. I wanted to take the standard sports-movie arc and go beyond that and go back to things that made an impact on my life.

Gelf Magazine: Having grown up in Seattle and now living in New York City, how would you compare their racial divides?

Doug Merlino: In a lot of ways, they are similar. You can go 30 blocks north of the Upper East Side and be in a completely different world. Seattle has its own divide, even though its minority population is much smaller. Overall the dynamics are similar, but people are much more together superficially in New York because they are forced to be in close quarters because of New York's public transit. Seattle's Central Area is a lot like Harlem, as it is home to a similar demographic and is constantly dealing with gentrification.

Gelf Magazine: What do you hope people take away from the book?

Doug Merlino: I hope people strive for deeper methods to educate people and bring people closer together. There is a giant lack of understanding of where people come from, which is a hindrance. If you're able to get past the surface level to a deeper understanding, it'll make not only sports better, but improve schools and other programs, as well. I don't think there will ever be a panacea, but of the 10 guys in the book, our friendship is much closer and had it not been for our team, we would've been separated our whole lives despite growing up within a few miles of each other.

Gelf Magazine: Were there certain books that inspired The Hustle?

Doug Merlino: I liked Michael Apted's Up Series films. As for books, I always respected Hoop Dreams by Ben Joravsky, and Michael Sokolove's The Ticket Out.

The Hustle

The team, then and now.

Gelf Magazine: Muhammed Ali and Jim Brown were not only incredible athletes, but outspoken civil-rights leaders. Are there any current athletes whose political opinions you respect?

Doug Merlino: In today's world of corporate sponsorships, there is a big disincentive to speaking out. Back in the old days, the lack of sponsors coupled with the civil-rights movement created an environment where athletes would speak out a lot more. Everything now is so much more diffused. I think a lot of players today are very active in their communities. They just do it away from the media.

Gelf Magazine: Is there any city that you believe excels in racial equality?

Doug Merlino: Another thing the book shows is how connected race and class are. Seattle was a very industrial city that was built around Boeing. But just like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, it's gone from an industrial, blue-collar town to a tech city, with high-paying salaries but fewer overall jobs, and as a result, the lower-income families keep getting pushed out to the suburbs. Race relations will always shift with the economy as the two are intertwined.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think there is a possibility that professional hoops will ever return to Seattle?

Doug Merlino: Man, you had to put the knife in my heart. My parents went to a Sonics game the night before I was born, and I grew up with the Sonics. I saw them the year before they left, when they were absolutely horrible. I think we'll get another team, but it will most likely be stolen from another city. The whole thing makes me sick.

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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